Container Gardening for Wildlife
by Marlene Haas
Provide food for pollinators in small spaces.
Container gardening is ideal for the urban naturalist trying to maximize blooms per square inch, but is also a welcome addition to a larger yard. Following a few simple guidelines will result in healthy plants cascading over pots and enticing wildlife to visit.
First one must find the appropriate home for a floral occupant. When choosing a container, keep in mind what plant you want to grow in it. The size and shape of the root system and the growth rate are factors determining how big and deep of a pot you want. Large pots stay moist longer, are less subject to temperature fluctuations, and allow for more root growth and multiple plant displays. Hanging pots are the most susceptible to drying out.
Pots can be made out of a number of materials. Depending on your taste and setting, you might try clay, terra-cotta, cast concrete or wood. Wood can be pressure-treated and painted, just do not use creosote, which is toxic to plants. Line pressure-treated wood with plastic if using the pot for edibles. Be creative and recycle a wooden barrel or watering can.
If you're not familiar with your locally native plants, you can experiment with them in containers before setting them loose in your yard. In many cases, local natives will be hardier than non-native plants. Locally native flowering plants will attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators. Non-hardy plants will need to have winter protection or be moved to a sheltered location. If plants are combined in one pot, just be sure that their growing conditions and growth forms are compatible.
Drainage is important to prevent roots from being waterlogged, which hinders nutrient uptake and can lead to root rot. With this in mind, outdoor plants should not be left in standing water. If a pot lacks adequate drainage, add extra holes using an electric drill with a masonry bit. Put newspaper over the holes to prevent soil from spilling out. Elevating pots on pottery or wooden feet also helps with drainage and aeration. It is better to opt for a houseplant soil mixture over regular garden soil, which is too dense. To help keep the soil cool and moist, top with a layer of mulch.
Watering the plant itself can inhibit efficient gas exchange in the leaves, so it is better to water the soil directly. The moisture of the soil should be checked frequently, both at the edge and in the center of the pot. Your watering schedule should vary with the seasons. In cooler months, allow the plant to nearly dry out between watering. When the temperature is up, water daily to every other day. If a plant has wilted due to dehydration, immerse the pot in tepid water until no air bubbles appear and place in a shady spot until the cells are again turgid. Watering is best done early in the morning when it is cool.